Interview with Director iara lee about Stalking Chernobyl (in English and Spanish)

December 16, 2021


This interview was originally published in Spanish by El Destape and Grupo La Provincia. Below is an English translation of the interview.


  1. What was the starting point for developing the movie?
I did not have any intention of making a film in Ukraine when I first visited the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in 2017. But the culture that I found there was so shocking to me that I had to share it with the world. Chernobyl was the site of a tragic nuclear disaster, but now three decades have passed and forests and wildlife have taken over again. People are also coming back, with the utmost curiosity, passion, and even obsession. Some are scientists or wildlife experts. Others are thrill-seekers, adventurers, or artists, and some are called “stalkers.” These are kids who come to hike and deeply explore the Exclusion Zone, many times entering illegal areas that are still contaminated with radiation… I started to film this unique underground subculture that I saw developing and the film evolved from there.

  1. How was the process of making it? It has a lot of archival footage and sources.
Yes, with all of my films, clearing the rights to archival footage, checking facts with experts, and making sure that the background information we present is accurate is a big part of the work. I think a lot of people imagine filmmaking to be a very glamorous endeavor, where you’re traveling to exotic places and spending time with fascinating people. And, certainly, that’s one element of it. But the other element is that it’s a lot of painstaking labor—whether that’s technical editing, sound-syncing, and color correction, or whether it’s archival research and securing permissions. That’s the side of filmmaking that is not so glamorous!


  1. One of the interviewees said, “People who think that they don’t see radiation think that maybe the radiation doesn’t exit.” We can swap “radiation” for “Covid-19” and find people who think the same thing. Do you agree? Is this a condition of human beings?
I talked a lot with nuclear experts about the safety question. One expert, Cindy Folkers, a radiation and health specialist at the group Beyond Nuclear, told me: “If radiation were colored red, people could understand the danger they are walking into. But because we only have inadequate equipment to measure, we don’t grasp the full danger…. So you combine the fascination of a once-vibrant place that is now a hollowed-out abandoned ghost town, with the false sense of security offered by inadequate measuring equipment, and you end up with a lot of untrained people putting themselves, and others they may contact outside the zone, at risk. This is bound to happen when the risk is virtually invisible.”
I think there is an extent to which the people who explore Chernobyl don’t really acknowledge the risk. But there’s another factor, too, which is that they know they might be exposing themselves to some danger, but they think that the risk is worth taking.
I think the comparison you make with the COVID-19 pandemic is very interesting. There’s a lot of ignorance out there, where people don’t realize that, by avoiding safety measurements, they are not just putting themselves in danger but also endangering others. But there’s another level to it, too: People have different appetites for risk, and some people are willing to accept a greater level of danger in their own lives than others. That’s why some of these public health decisions cannot be made at the individual level. We need public policies in place to guide a collective response to the pandemic and also to places like the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which is becoming a very dangerous Disneyland.


  1. On the one hand, the stalkers seem like people who disrespect a site of tragedy; on the other hand, they give life and a new meaning to a place that saw a lot of death. Could there be a balance between these two attitudes?
Yes, there is a big debate around what is called “dark tourism.” This revolves around the question of, “Should we turn the sites of deadly disasters into destinations for international pilgrimage?” 
I don’t necessarily take sides, but this is a debate that I wanted to highlight in the film. For stalkers such as Oleg Shalashov, who served as a co-producer for the documentary, the Chernobyl site is less about remembrance of disaster and more about what the place has become. For him, it is not so much about the tragedy of the past and more about how life has rebounded—whether it’s nature coming back or artists and adventurers claiming this space as their own.
In my filmmaking, I try to let people express their own views, even if that means showing people who have very different perspectives, and then letting viewers decide for themselves what position they take.
  1. The movie shows the power of the impetus of people—the impetus of the stalkers and also the impetus of film directors, for example. Both of them put their impetus over the risks. Do you agree? Did you want to show that?
Are film directors like stalkers themselves? I hadn’t thought of that before, but you can certainly make the case that it is true! We are drawn to explore areas that are out of bounds. 
As a conflict-zone filmmaker, I have filmed in war-torn countries many times, but it is a risk I take for myself, consciously knowing about the dangers.
That said, you can only take the comparison so far. Just because you are filming the stalkers does not mean you have total sympathy or identification. Some of the behavior I show can be seen as a cautionary tale. When stalkers go to the Exclusion Zone in the winter and burn wood to warm themselves up, we know Chernobyl wood releases radiation when burned. I even learned about a collector who collects radiated metal pieces and brings them on a plane with her. This is definitely illegal and dangerous behavior.


  1. You also show the consequences of humans in nature. First, we tried to convert the energy from fossil remains into nuclear energy, but now we can see that nuclear energy could be more dangerous. What could the solution to the climate crisis be? The production of energy or the general production system? In your opinion, where is the balance?
I am glad you raise these issues because I definitely wanted to make this a film that is, on its surface, about adventure and exploration but that can also bring forward deeper conversations. These conversations go beyond post-apocalyptic tourism and encourage us to probe questions about the feasibility of nuclear power and the unintended consequences of pursuing high-tech solutions to our problems. 
These are ideas that have been important to me over my entire career as a filmmaker. The first documentary I made in the 1990s, a film called Synthetic Pleasures, is about the human desire to control nature through technology. It is about people creating artificial environments—like indoor beaches and ski slopes—and altering their bodies through plastic surgery. These are ways humans have tried to control or replace nature. The idea that humans have this type of curiosity and Promethean ambition that can become self-destructive has fascinated me for a long time.
In terms of the nuclear question, at the website we have a lot of materials about the nuclear power debate, covering different points that critics and advocates make. We also have interviews there with different experts. I encourage people to check them out!

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